I had an experience in a hotel this past month that emphasized, yet again, how we learn a great deal about customer service simply by observing what happens around us.

This experience was a minor, even trivial, example; but it made me look carefully at how the strong human need to be “right” can result in something considerably less than excellent customer service. The need to be right is an emotional need. However, when service providers attempt to fulfill their own emotional needs, this can have a negative impact on the customer. Even when you are right, your proving this is often felt by customers to be at their emotional expense.

I needed to quickly reach someone to obtain information about where a meeting was going to be held in the hotel. I knew that several people registered in the hotel had this information. So, I called the front desk and asked to be connected to one of their guest rooms. I was transferred from the operator to the front desk, and only then to the person I needed to reach. However, he was not in his room; and all of this took time that I didn’t have.

All I got for my efforts was voice mail. Then, because of the way this hotel’s phone system functioned, I had to go through the same lengthy routing to try another person. To save myself time, in case all my contacts were not in their rooms, I decided to go directly to the hotel lobby and ask for help at the front desk rather than be put through this multistep and slow process.

When I reached the front desk, all the clerks were occupied with guests. A bellman standing nearby nicely asked me if he could help. I explained my situation, and he told me I could reach the front desk directly and get connected to a guest room without having to go through the operator. I explained that when I called the front desk, the operator answered the line and only then was I connected to the front desk clerk who had to look up the guest room number before I could be connected.

He told me that I was wrong, and then he went to the telephone at the front desk to “prove” that he could reach the front desk directly. He was a little red-faced when the telephone rang directly to the operator.

The need to be right, and then to prove it, is a deeply seated human need. Perhaps, it emerges from our impulse to survive. However, the psychoanalyst, Karen Horney, identifies it as a “neurotic need”. We can survive very well, whether or not this need is met. Whoever was right in this particular situation was not a major issue neither my nor the bellman’s life. But, as a customer service statement, it definitely set the wrong tone.

The important issue is that this man felt compelled to demonstrate that his picture of reality was correct and mine was incorrect. For whatever reason, his need to show me he was right became the
paramount statement being communicated. How can service providers overcome this very human, but neurotic, need to prove they are right? First, they need to understand this tendency detracts from customers feeling positive about their experience. From the customer’s point of view, any attempt on the service provider’s part to prove themselves right, will necessarily probably result in the customer feeling scolded because they were wrong.

Second, if service providers want to be able to control their need to be right, they must work on checking this human tendency in other parts of their lives. Expecting to be able to turn off the
competitive feeling of proving one’s self right just at work is no doubt very difficult. How can you wean yourself away from the need to make yourself right at the expensive of your client? Here are two simple recommendations:

  • Ask yourself whether it makes any difference as to who is right and who is wrong. It may be a complete non-issue. Focus on the benefits to be gained from seeing things from the customer’s
    point of view.
  • If the situation is critical and the other person needs to be educated about something, ask yourself whether there is a constructive way to help the other person without demeaning them in the process.

In my situation, how could the bellman have better handled himself when he walked to the phone to gain “proof” that he was correct? Here are some possibilities.

He could have refrained from challenging my information, and simply focused on helping me get my needs met. He could have told me that this is not how the system is supposed to work, but that he appreciated learning about it so he could fix it. He might then have asked me if it was okay if he checked it himself. At a minimum, if he desperately needed to demonstrate to himself that